Fragment of a clay tablet, showing two columns of cuneiform script

How to write cuneiform

Publication date: 21 January 2021

Learn how to write cuneiform – the oldest form of writing in the world – with curator Irving Finkel, using just a lolly stick and a piece of clay to master the ancient script!

How to write cuneiform

Originating in what is now Iraq before 3,200 BC, cuneiform script is, as far as we know, the oldest form of writing in the world.

First developed by scribes as a bookkeeping tool to keep track of bread and beer rations in ancient cities like Uruk (in the south east of modern-day Iraq), the system soon spread across the Middle East and was used continuously for more than 3,000 years, up until the first century AD.

Cuneiform is not a language but a proper way of writing distinct from the alphabet. It doesn't have 'letters' – instead it uses between 600 and 1,000 characters impressed on clay to spell words by dividing them up into syllables, like 'ca-at' for cat, or 'mu-zi-um' for museum. Other signs stood for whole words, like our '£' standing for pound sterling.

You can see how words can be written in syllables in the handy chart below, from cuneiform (available to buy from the British Museum Shop), by curators Irving Finkel and Jonathan Taylor.

Cuneiform code chart with syllables written next to them
Cuneiform code chart from cuneiform by Irving Finkel and Jonathan Taylor.


The two main languages written in cuneiform are Sumerian and Akkadian, although more than a dozen others are recorded, including Hittite, cousin to Latin.

Texts were written by pressing a cut, straight reed into slightly moist clay. The characteristic wedge-shaped strokes that make up the signs give the writing its modern name – cuneiform means 'wedge-shaped' (from the Latin cuneus for 'wedge').

In this video, Irving Finkel, curator in the Department of the Middle East, teaches us how to write cuneiform using just a lolly (popsicle) stick and some clay.

Irving Finkel teaches how to write cuneiform
Irving Finkel, Curator's Corner

Keen to read more about cuneiform? You might like our blog on the Library of Ashurbanipal – a collection of more than 20,000 clay tablets and fragments inscribed with cuneiform dating to about 2,700 years ago, covering all kinds of topics from magic to medicine, and politics to palaces.

A rectangular clay tablet covered with cuneiform script written in two columns
The Flood Tablet. Fragment of a clay tablet with part of the Epic of Gilgamesh. Assyrian, 7th century BC.


Learn more about this ancient script with cuneiform, written by Irving Finkel and Jonathan Taylor and published by British Museum Press. Buy the book from the British Museum Shop.

Cover of book with cuneiform characters, title and authors name
Cuneiform by Irving Finkel and Jonathan Taylor.